What should we expect from Connor McDavid’s rookie year?

Updated: October 12, 2015 at 8:00 am by Cam Lewis

13 different players have recorded their first career NHL goal so far this season, and Connor McDavid isn’t one of them. Should we all panic? No we shouldn’t. Many people had the expectation that McDavid, who tore up Major Junior at a borderline unfair level over the past couple years, would jump into his professional career and continue putting the puck in the back of the net at will. Through his first two career games that hasn’t happened, and it’s okay. 

Let’s take a look at some other highly touted rookies from recent memory and put together some realistic expectations for what to expect from McDavid in his first professional campaign. 

For anybody who thought McDavid was going to come into the league and score over 100 points — you’re kidding yourself. Last season, Jamie Benn won the Art Ross Trophy with 35 goals and 52 assists, which was the lowest total for a scoring champion since the 1967-68 season. Expecting McDavid to come into the league and win the scoring title is one thing, but expecting him to outproduce the total put up by last year’s scoring champion by 10 or more points is just silly. The immediate comparison that McDavid will draw is Sidney Crosby because as the narrative suggests, McDavid is the best talent to come along since Crosby, and in order to validate that claim, he has to have just as good of a rookie season as Crosby did. In Crosby’s rookie year back in 2005-06 (wow that was a decade ago now), he scored 39 goals and 63 assists in 81 games, good for 1.26 points per game. Even as amazing as that was, it was only good for sixth highest point total in the league. 

It’s important to remember that the league now is completely different than it was in 2005-06. Last year, the average team scored 224 goals, while in 2005-06, the average team managed 253. Why the substantial difference? The biggest reason for the spike is goal scoring that season was probably due to the amount of penalties called. The 2004-05 lockout called for many changes in the NHL, including the removal of the stupid two line pass rule, the implantation of the shootout, and the idea that every time a defenceman touched a forward or looked at them funny, a penalty would be called. In 2005-06, the average team had 480 power play opportunities, meaning everybody was getting somewhere around like six power plays per game. Last year, the average team was only given 251 power play opportunities, nearly half as many as the average in 2005-06. 

Crosby scored 39 goals and 63 assists that year. 23 of the goals and 30 of the assists came at even strength, while 16 goals and 31 assists were on the power play. Let’s do some lazy math and say that the power play opportunities were cut in half to reflect about where they would have been in 2014-15. The Penguins were given 495 power play opportunities that year, which was slightly above average, so in 2014-15, that would equate to something like 270 power play opportunities. If the 2005-06 Penguins were playing in the scope of the 2014-15 season, but had the exact same 19 per cent power play efficiency that they did with less opportunities, they would have scored about 51 power play goals as opposed to the 94 they actually scored that year. So if the Penguins only scored 51 goals on the power play thanks to the same level of efficiency and less opportunities, it’s safe to say Crosby wouldn’t have managed to score 16 goals and 31 assists on the power play. That number, in this context, would likely drop to around nine goals and 16 assists, which when added to his even strength numbers would have given him a rookie campaign of 31 goals and 61 assists. 

I know, all of that is completely hypothetical and it’s impossible to tell exactly how Crosby would have fared if the NHL back in his rookie year was the exact same that it is now. As I mentioned, the 2005-06 and 2015-16 seasons are so different that simply stacking McDavid and Crosby’s point totals side by side is pretty useless, set’s look at some more recent rookie seasons for a better idea of what to expect from McDavid. 

Steven Stamkos and John Tavares broke into the league in 2008-09 and 2009-10 respectively, and both put up pretty “meh” rookie seasons. Neither of them won the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie, and they both didn’t finish anywhere near the top of the league in scoring. Stamkos managed 23 goals and 23 assists after a horrific start to the season, while Tavares was slightly better, putting up 24 goals and 30 assists. Scoring was still higher in each of Stamkos and Tavares’ rookie seasons than it is now, but the gap isn’t quite as massive as the one between 2005-06 and 20014-15. In Stamkos’ rookie year, the average team managed 239 goals, then in Tavares’ year, it shrunk to 233. Patrick Kane and Nathan MacKinnon, on the other hand, both had excellent rookie seasons. Kane managed 21 goals and 51 assists which was good for the highest total on the Hawks and a Calder Trophy nod. Again, that was back in 2007-08 when goals were being scored at a much higher rate than they are right now. A couple years ago, MacKinnon was also awarded with the Calder after an impressive 24 goals and 39 assist season with the Avs, so that would probably be the most reasonable season to directly compare to McDavid’s. 

With all that considered, what should we expect from McDavid? Since it’s difficult to compare player X’s season with player Y’s season when the league changes as much as it does, I find the most effective thing to do is use relation to other players as a benchmark from true success. 

Crosby’s rookie year was really impressive not only because he scored 102 points, but because he finished sixth in the league in scoring. Making this slightly less incredible was the fact Alex Ovechkin, who won the Calder Trophy that year, finished third in league scoring with 52 goals and 54 assists. I’m avoiding using Ovechkin in this comparison, though, because even though he was a rookie, he played a season professionally with Moscow Dynamo during the lockout and entered the season as a 19-year old. So regardless of how many points he puts up, in order for him to have a season on the same level as Crosby (or Ovechkin), he has to finish in the top 10 in league scoring. 

Of course, not having a season of that calibre wouldn’t be some kind of failure. Both Stamkos and Tavares had somewhat ‘disappointing’ rookie years, finishing 132nd and 77th in league scoring in their respective rookie years, and they’ve both gone on to become elite players in the NHL. MacKinnon and Kane both had impressive rookie years, and can be looked at somewhere in between Stamkos/Tavares and Crosby’s level of rookie achievement. MacKinnon was 35th in league scoring, while Kane was 32nd. Judging by the hype McDavid has coming into his rookie year, it would be a disappointment if he didn’t have one of the more impressive 18-year old rookie performances in recent memory. In order for him to do so, we should expect a top 30 finish in league scoring. Where that’ll be in terms of points exactly I don’t know because it’s hard to predict how the league will play out this year, but the most reasonable benchmark for comparison for different seasons is relation to peers. If he can do that, even though he won’t have a Crosby level season, he’ll have had the best rookie year from a first overall pick in recent memory, which in my opinion, will be living up to the hype.